Dumb and dumber

April 1, 1996

The movie Dumb and Dumber rated a thumbs down in my opinion, and many mishaps that befall our fellow pilots do also. In analyzing the five or so accidents that occur each day, the AOPA Air Safety Foundation has observed that the frequent lack of judgment is remarkable and regrettable.

Some months ago a member on AOPA Online wanted to know how general aviation compared with automobiles in terms of accidents per mile. He knew seven pilots who had been fatally injured and was doing some soul searching about whether flying was really safe. It was a sobering request.

Cars and airplanes are completely different animals and the statistical comparison is admittedly treacherous. In rough terms, cars are eight times more likely to have an accident than a general aviation aircraft on a per-mile basis. If an aircraft accident occurs, however, it is eight times more likely to be fatal. This number includes all manner of aircraft and flight operations, from crop dusters to corporate jets, so the rate by segment may vary, but it is a good starting point.

Part of the higher fatality explanation is simple — cars travel an average of 35 miles per hour, whereas airplanes are typically four times that fast. Cars are driven on the ground, while aircraft operate in the third dimension. The laws of physics apply to both, so there really aren't any surprises. One price we pay for using our time machines is an increased penalty if we hit something. But hitting something is not inevitable or even probable if we just use a few safeguards. The member provided a brief account of how his friends were lost, and while I am unable to relate their abilities, the circumstances appeared to fall into a familiar pattern for several of the accidents.

As the Air Safety Foundation analyzes the past year's accidents, we see repetition of the usual problem areas. This brings us to the "dumb and dumber" part. For the purpose of this discussion we arbitrarily decided that an accident would be considered really dumb if it were of the pilot's own making and there was ample time to make a decision before the situation deteriorated beyond the critical moment.

Dumb accident number one is low-level maneuvering flight. Last year there were 135 mishaps that resulted in hitting wires, towers, buildings, or the ground. They typically involved a low-time pilot out for a spin, literally in some cases, and there were fatalities in almost 50 percent of the cases.

When pilots decide to view the countryside from a low altitude, the risk goes up significantly. Pardon the preaching, but in pleasure flying — where most of these accidents occur — there is just no good reason to fly 200 feet above the ground except just after takeoff and on final approach. The typical wire strike occurs below 100 feet agl. Fly at least 1,000 feet agl, and except for a few really tall towers, this problem will largely disappear.

Dumb accident number two involves pilots' continuing VFR into instrument meteorological conditions. This is a perennial problem with the single-engine retractable group who use the airplane for cross-country transportation. In 1995 some 60 airplanes were lost, with an 86-percent fatality rate.

Some people blame forecasts, the terrain, or the weather itself, but there isn't a cloud out there that will outrun even the oldest, slowest slug in the fleet. VFR-into-IMC accidents can be avoided by making the go/no-go decision correctly before departure; if the decision is to go, it may have to be updated every few minutes, depending on conditions. Granted, there are times when the choices are not clear-cut. That is where having a current instrument rating and filing an IFR flight plan before engaging in cloud-busting will cut down the inconvenience. If tempted to scud run, just remember what the risks are versus the reward — it's not a good tradeoff.

Dumb accident number three involves running out of fuel. ASF has come up with 13 excuses that we will share with you in a future "Safety Pilot"; but for now, accept the fact that these mishaps are easily preventable. 1995 saw 99 fuel mismanagement accidents. Fortunately, most of them were not fatal.

Now what would it do to the general aviation accident rate if we arbitrarily eliminated these dumb accidents from the statistics?

By eliminating the dumb accidents, the fatal accident rate could be cut by one third. This is great news to the average conscientious pilot and his passengers. Avoiding these easily defined problems is something all of us could do; and if we did, many problems facing general aviation would subside. Public perception of our activity would improve significantly.

The Air Safety Foundation is looking for ways to reach the pilots who may be headed for a dumb accident. They generally don't come to safety seminars and probably aren't reading this column or the other thousands of pages published annually on flying safely. The problem is that they don't know what they don't know, and it's tough to give medicine to someone when he thinks he's not sick. If this were easily solved, it would have been done by now.

If you know a pilot who might be inclined to participate in dumb flying activities, invite him or her to an ASF seminar for starters. Otherwise, rent a copy of Dumb and Dumber and see if you can keep that pilot entertained, on the ground, and out of airplanes. Either way, general aviation will come out a winner.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.